Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Poe: Last Days of the Raven

Friday night I went to Cinematheque to see "Poe: Last Days of the Raven".
The film was written, co-produced, co-directed and stars Brent Fidler, a Canadian actor based in Los Angeles.
The film script was apparently based on his play about the life of Edgar Allan Poe.

I know from personal experience how hard it is to get a first feature done in this country and my hat is off to any and everybody who manages to achieve this feat. Whenever I go to see one of these things I want to love it.

It apparently took 24 years to get this film made and that's part of the problem.

It began promisingly and creepily enough with a drunk and dissipated Poe being robbed in an alley by thugs and then found by friends. The child Poe in the theatre watching the dissolution of his parent's marriage and the death of his mother was effective. We then go to Mr. Fidler playing Poe as a very young man and this was where the trouble started.

In the more than two decades since Mr. Fidler initially took to the stage in this role, he like the rest of us, has gotten - well, older. Poe died at 40. Mr. Fidler is at least 10 years past that and seeing him in bed with the thirteen-year old bride who was all too convincingly her age ( Poe married his young first cousin when he was 23) went well past creepy. Mackenzie Gray does good work as Poe's estranged guardian but he and Fidler are far too obviously of the same vintage for us to buy Gray as a father figure. Poe's young love interests all look more like his daughters.

The script was in dire need of a story editor to create a workable cinematic adaptation from the original material. This isn't a filmed play a la BRAVO or the CBC . Nor is it cinematic enough to be convincingly a movie based on a play. It's a bit of both and sadly neither.

Fidler recites the poems well but the recitals are poorly integrated into the narrative and often just bring the action to a grinding halt. The end result of all this work is a disjointed and wildly uneven film.

Mr Fidler is clearly an accomplished actor. If he had played only the dying Poe and cast someone else as his more youthful counterpart and worked with a story editor to come up with a better script, his labour of love would have been less lost on the audience.

5 O'Clock Bells

My folks KNEW Lenny Breau. I grew up listening to his music and hearing stories about his messy life. So it was with excitement and some trepidation that I went to see MTC's first production of the season about the life of the late, great guitarist Lenny Breau.

Pierre Brault wrote and performed this piece. He creates the family, wives and musicians who surrounded Breau using their differing voices like strings on a guitar to riff about Lenny's talent and troubles.

This is an elegantly constructed play with a spare effective set and a fabulous lighting design. Brault is a fine writer and the script is impressive. The colours of the lights meld beautifully with the vocal colourings Brault uses to distinguish the dozen or so people he creates onstage. The relationship between Breau and his mother is especially movingly portrayed.

The one colour we don't see or feel much of onstage is black. Brault plays Breau as a man-child. He doesn't shy away from the darker side of Breau's life but he never seems consumed by daemons as Breau was. The ending is blue but not a really dark shade for a genius whose too-short life ended face down in a pool.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fall into Winnipeg's Winter Theatre Season

Snow landed in Winnipeg this weekend but the fall/winter theatre season began back in September with A WINTER'S TALE produced by TOM TOM THEATRE and a staging of a Dostoyevsky short story TO THE COUNTRY by the Winnipegger Ensemble over at the Gas Station Theatre.

After a summer on the Fringe circuit watching people work out of a suitcase, I was struck by the production values that are possible when companies are stationary and have arts council or university department budgets.

Fringe shows have to be set up and struck in 15 minutes for each performance. They get three hours to tech into the theatre in every city, no matter what. Most productions tour with minimal or no set and very basic lighting and costumes. After three months of viewing work made within these constrictions, I can't say that I've seen anything so far this season to equal what Jonno Katz ( The Accident) did with a bare stage or what Erik de Waal (Blue is the Water) achieved with a piece of fabric, a chocolate voice and a great story.

TO THE COUNTRY featured interstitial film by deco dawson, and a lovely, two sided, fun-house set. It was a charming adaptation if a bit precious for my taste, anchored by a particularly fine performance by Ross MacMillan as a hapless suitor.

The production of A WINTER'S TALE staged in the terrific new theatre at the University of Winnipeg made inventive use of an airy paper set, contemporary costumes, live music and a puppet in the role of a child. It was an enjoyable, well directed show, although it lacked the emotional impact of other productions I've seen of the play. Like its paper set, this TALE was lightweight.

The two independent productions were followed FemFest, billed as an annual festival of plays by women for everyone.

I saw three things at the festival: a reading of scenes from a group of new local plays in development, a staged workshop of a new play LOVE FOR SALE and Laura Harris' production of PITCH BLONDE about the life of Judy Holliday, particularly her testimony at the McCarthy hearings.

PITCH BLONDE was an apt choice at a moment in history where there's a global hunt for "terrorists" under every bed or at least in every airport. I'd seen Laura perform the piece on tour earlier this summer and I felt the intelligent writing and strong performance deserved a bigger house than the show got the night I attended it in Winnipeg.

The short readings featured two pieces about women in the "sandwich generation", one historical piece, the follow up to a hit Fringe play about an art school model, and a piece about a woman with a gambling problem.

I have to say I wondered why one of those plays wasn't chosen for a staged workshop over LOVE FOR SALE which was clearly in a nascent stage of development.

The convenience store on Christmas Eve seemed tossed up around a disjointed, if interesting grab bag of characters, situations and ideas. Both the structure and the relationships between the characters felt arbitrary and contrived. Tonally, the piece was all over the place: the writer couldn't seem to decide if she was writing a comedy, a farce or a drama. There were some fine monologues, some good ideas and some genuinely engaging characters ( the shop clerk, the impoverished single parent, the old Jewish lady in the nursing home hilariously portrayed by Nancy Drake) but the writer needs to focus this story if the current hodge-podge is going to metamorphose into something more coherent.

This week both CHERRY DOCS and 5 O'CLOCK BELLS opened in Winnipeg. I heard great things about 5 O'CLOCK BELLS from theatre lover and Winnipeg fringe devotee Brian Carroll while I was in Ottawa this summer. I'm also anxious to see what Graham Ashmore, an actor whose work I've consistently enjoyed is going to do with the role of the lawyer in CHERRY DOCS which I saw played by R.H.Thompson in Toronto some years ago. I'm looking forward to catching both shows.